The Right to Information (RTI) Commission has ruled that information on President Akufo-Addo’s travels on both private and state-owned presidential jets, and the accompanying cost incurred, should not be made public.
The Commission said such information falls under the exempted information specified in section 5 of the RTI law. The RTI Commission cited national security concerns for its ruling.
However, on June 24, 2022, while the petition was pending before the RTI Commission, the Director of Communications at the Presidency, Eugene Arhin, shared the president’s itinerary during one of President Akufo-Addo’s travels abroad. This contradicts the RTI commission’s decision that disclosing the type of flight, the President’s itinerary and the size of the delegation, puts the security of the President at risk and therefore, the information was exempted.
While the president was still on the trip, the Director of Communications released a press statement and, among others, gave details of some of the places the president was yet to go:
“…the President travelled to Belgium on board an Air France commercial flight (AF0584), which departed Accra on Sunday 7:20 PM, made a stop-over in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and then continued to Paris. In fact, all of President Akufo Addo’s 12-member delegation travelled via commercial,” the press statement stated.
It continued: “One such trip to be undertaken by the President, where the Presidential jet is to be used, will be on Sunday, 26th June, where he will travel to Lisbon, Portugal, to attend the 2022 UN Ocean Conference, and return home Wednesday, 29th June,” the statements issued by the Presidency said.
It was in response to allegations the Member of Parliament North Tongu, Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, had made that the President had hired a private jet for the trip in question.
Though the office of the president gave details of a trip that was still pending, the RTI Commission ruled that information Manasseh was seeking about a past trip on similar issues could not be released.
Manasseh Azure Awuni, in December 2021, requested information on the procurement process used in selecting the companies from which the presidency rented private jets for the president’s travels as well as the cost of renting the private jets between May and September 2021.
The Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Estate also wanted a copy of the assessment report which declared the current presidential jet technically unfit for use by the president for which the presidency resorted to the renting of private jets. The request also wanted to know the number of people who travelled with the president
In a response on January 19, 2022, the Chief of Staff, Akosua Frema Osei-Opare, commended The Fourth Estate for its use of the RTI law. She, however, said the information requested was exempted according to the RTI law.
“Your request for access to information on the president’s travel has been carefully considered and I have found that the information requested falls within the kinds of information classified as “exempt from disclosure” by the RTI Act as the information requests relate to:
- The movement and travels of the president, the Commander-In-Chief of the Ghana Armed Forces, which information is a matter of national security.
- Information on the processes leading to the choice by the President of a specific aircraft for his travels and the manner of those travels; and
- The presidential jet is part of the equipment of the Ghana Armed Forces and thus, its use is part of the defence mechanisms of the Republic.
“The Information requested is, therefore, exempt under sections 5(1) (b)(ii),9(1)(a) and (9)(2) of the RTI Act.
Unsatisfied with the response, Manasseh wrote an internal appeal to President Akufo-Addo on February 10, 2022, for a review of the Chief of Staff’s decision. This step was in accordance with section 31 of the RTI Act, 2019 (Act 989).
He argued that despite the Chief of Staff’s reference to section 5(1) of the RTI Act, section 5(2) of the Act states that “Information which contains factual or statistical data is not exempt information.”
“Section 5(2) therefore excludes parts of our request, especially the portions relating to numbers, costs, and statistics, from being exempt,” he stated.
“Moreover, the issue concerning the president’s hiring and travels in a private jet is an issue of public interest that has generated fierce debates and discussions in parliament, the media, and among the general public,” the appeal to the president stated.
It continued: “For many citizens, the issue borders on the abuse of authority by the president, and neglect in the performance of his official function of protecting the public purse, especially when the state has a functioning presidential jet in Dassault Falcon 900-EXE, which is being used by some heads of States in the West African sub-region. My request, therefore, relates to the public interest and abuse of authority, in accordance with section 17(1)(d)(e), which states:
“‘Despite a provision of this Act on information exempt from disclosure, information is not exempt from disclosure if the disclosure of the information reveals evidence of:
(d)an abuse of authority or a neglect in the performance of an official function;
or (e) any other matter of public interest and the benefits of disclosure clearly outweigh the harm or danger that the disclosure will cause.’”
The appeal to the President said the response of the Chief of Staff failed to prove that disclosing the cost of the private jet rented by the president, and the procurement processes leading to that could jeopardise the security of the president.
More than 15 days later, the president failed to respond to the internal review application as required by the RTI law. This necessitated an appeal to the RTI Commission on the matter.
RTI Commission’s ruling
It said a critical assessment of the requests by “the applicant [Manasseh Awuni Azure] shows that responses to those requests, in one way or the other, reveal information about the President’s movement: the number of people he normally travels with, the type of aircraft that is normally hired for his travels and the companies whose aircraft are normally hired and the movement of the presidential jet.”
It added: “All these are things that pertain to the President’s security, the security of his movements, the security of the officers he travels with; all feeding into national security or security of the State. Information in that respect should therefore be exempt from disclosure in accordance with sections 5(1)(b)(ii) and 9 (1)(a), (2) of Act 989,” the commission’s ruling said.
The ruling came 10 months after Manasseh Azure Awuni petitioned the Commission on the presidency’s refusal to disclose information on the cost of renting private jets for the president’s foreign travels, the procurement processes and the size of entourage which had become subject of intense public debate.
The Commission said aside from grounding its ruling in Section 5 of the RTI law, the responses the Minister of National Security, Albert Kan Dapaah, gave Parliament in December 2021, affirmed its argument that the information be exempted from disclosure to the public.
The National Minister had told Parliament that “recent official travels to France, Belgium, and South Africa by President Akufo-Addo are paid for out of the operational funds from the Ministry of National Security. Mr Speaker, payments out of the ministry’s operational funds are glued with rules of confidentiality and state secrecy and it is not the normal practice…to make the suggested disclosures.”
Manasseh had argued to the commission that the information had statistical value and was, therefore, not exempted.
The RTI Commission said although the cost of the President’s travel was statistical data, which should be permissible under Act 989, its view “is that where those figures tell on the security of the President and his entourage, and therefore the national security of the State, those ‘figures’ or statistical information ought to be exempted from disclosure under Act 989 per sections 5(1) (b)(ii),9(1)(a), (2)).’’
The list of 13 exemptions in Section 5 of the Act includes information relating to law enforcement and public safety and security of the state, information prepared for the president, vice president or cabinet. Others are matters affecting international relations and information relating to economic or any other interest.
Do other countries disclose the cost of their president’s travel?
The demand for transparency and accountability about presidential travels and subsequent disclosure is not new. In other democracies, including countries in southern Africa and North America, governments have been open to parliamentary enquiries and right to information requests on the matter.
In November 2011, South Africa’s Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Lindiwe Sisulu, told Parliament that former South African President, Jacob Zuma’s, trip to the United States of America in September 2011 cost the public purse R6.3 million(the equivalent of $732,558).
Botswana also ticked the box of transparency for presidential travels. In August 2022, the Ministry for State President told lawmakers that President Mokgweetsi Masisi spent P18 million ($1,401,660) on his official trips to 26 countries including Ghana.
In the United States of America, the Government’s Accountability Office disclosed in January 2019 that President Donald Trump’s four trips to Mar-a-Lago from February 3, 2017, to March 5, 2017, cost a little over US$13million.
“We estimate that federal agencies incurred costs of about $13.6 million,” the office said.
Through a freedom of information request, Judicial Watch, a non-governmental organisation in the United States which promotes transparency and accountability went to court and obtained information that former American President Barack Obama’s travel expenses for his eight years in office cost the US taxpayer $96,938,882.51.
In Canada, the Department of National Defence pegged Prime Minister, Justine Trudeau’s cost of travel on a two-day trip in August 2020 at Can$54,115.08.
This information was made available through a freedom of information request.
Now in view of this response, we all have no other option than to believe what Mr Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa has put out.